4 dead, 8 injured in Indonesian military drill in in South China Sea
Representational image Reuters

Four Indonesian soldiers have been killed and eight others injured after a Chinese-made cannon malfunctioned and fired off shots randomly during military exercises on a South China Sea island on Wednesday, the army said on Thursday.

The incident took place during target practice with the Giant Bow cannon held by an Indonesian Army quick response team (PPRC TNI AD) at the Air Defence Artillery 1/K compound on Tanjung Datuk Natuna, on the northwestern fringe of the vast Indonesian archipelago.

"The cannon became uncontrollable and hit soldiers in the vicinity," army spokesman Alfret Denny Tuejeh told AFP. The injured people were taken to the Natuna General Hospital (RSUD Natuna). He added that out the eight hurt, four suffered serious injuries.

The exercises were reportedly a part of preparations ahead of a May 19 event during which a military parade will be conducted in front of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. However, Army spokesman Colonel Alfret Denny Tuejeh denied the exercises were connected to a parade, saying they were just regular exercises.

Earlier, he had confirmed that the incident occurred during a "rehearsal". On Wednesday, he said: "The incident occurred at about 11 am during the second round of exercises."

According to him, the gears "malfunctioned" after the first round of exercises proceeded smoothly. He added that the cannon, purchased in 2003, was used a day before without any problem. The military have begun an investigation to find out what caused the incident.

The island is a part of the small Natuna archipelago, remote Indonesian islands in the South China Sea. It is a home to rich fishing grounds and abundant oil reserves. In recent times, there have been repeated clashes between Chinese and Indonesian vessels around the islands. These clashes have prompted Indonesia to bolster its defences in the area.

Indonesia maintains it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, unlike other Asian nations, and does not contest ownership of reefs or islets there. However, Beijing's expansive claims in the conflicted waters overlap Indonesia's exclusive economic zone - waters where a state has the right to exploit resources - around the Natunas.

China has defended its incursions into Indonesian waters around the islands, saying its trawlers are operating in "traditional Chinese fishing grounds". But Jakarta disputes this.